Our interview process

And making the final decision on who to hire

In the final part in our series about hiring lab personnel (part 1, part 2, part 3), we come to the interview and final selection phases. It’s been a lot of work so far, but we’ve finally got a pool of about 5 excellent candidates. Our next lab member is in this pool and we’ve got to find them.

Of course, we want to find someone who is a good fit for us. But equally important is to ensure we’re a good fit for them. We give them the chance to vet us, explain how we can help their career, and give them a clear picture of what work with us will be like.

The interviews are our last chance to evaluate the candidates and to sell ourselves to the candidates. We’ve already evaluated written communication (see our last newsletter). In the interviews we focus on evaluating verbal communication and subtler forms of communication such as body language, enthusiasm, and tone.  

Two-part interview

We break interviews into two parts. In part one, our current lab members interview the candidates without me around. This is usually a 30 minute interview. We do this for several reasons. First, it further empowers our lab group in the decision process. Second, it demonstrates my trust in our lab group. Finally, it provides the applicant an opportunity to ask hard questions about me and gives our lab members a chance to respond unfiltered.

After the first interview, our current lab members can veto any candidate. Though this is rare, it has happened for various reasons. Only the top 2-3 candidates, as evaluated by the lab group, move on to the second interview.

The second interview is with me alone. I have four aims for the second interview:

  1. Continued evaluation of verbal communication skills. Usually I ask “What do you know about us?

  2. To provide the candidate with fine scale details of the project we are hiring them for and an overview of the general themes in our group outside of their project.

  3. To provide specific information on how I run our lab group.

  4. To answer any outstanding questions the candidate has.

I don’t set a time limit for my interview because the candidate may have a lot of questions and I want to be sure they are all answered. Depending on the position, this is a huge life change for them. We want to make sure they are as informed as they can be when making this choice.


Like our initial application review process, we construct and use rubrics for both sets of interviews. However, instead of using the rubrics to rank the candidates, we use them to guide our internal discussions. Below is an example of an interview rubric from a recent hire.

Example of an interview rubric for a recent hire. The specific questions we ask and the information we seek will vary slightly based on the specific position we are hiring for.

No “gotcha” questions.

We provide candidates with the specific questions we’ll ask them during their interview ahead of time. We want them to have time to prepare. We want to hear their best responses. No surprises.

The specific questions we ask of candidates has evolved and will continue to do so. No question is perfect. We are looking primarily for clarity in verbal communication and not necessarily further detail on skills and experiences. Does the candidate think clearly and communicate those thoughts clearly?

Making a decision.

After all the interviews are done, I solicit feedback on the finalists from the lab group. We will schedule a face-to-face meeting to discuss if necessary. I’ll include my opinion and the rationale for that opinion. We use the rubric as a guide for these discussions. In these discussions, we’re looking for a general consensus on who to offer the position to. Thus far, the top choices have unanimously supported by our group.

Reference check

Once we decide who to hire, I’ll reach out to the candidate’s professional references. I try to do this by phone or zoom. I verify that this person has the qualities that we all saw in them and ask if there is anything else we should know about them. I used to skip this step or do it over email. Emails do not convey the same information in a form that is as useful. Like reference letters, you often have to read between the lines of an email. Many folks will say things they won’t write in an email. How they say things is also lost through email. It also gives me a chance to ask followup questions.

The offer

Once we decide who to hire, we’ll make an offer. While we have not had a top candidate decline yet, if they did, we’d move to the next-best option. We’ll agree on a start date and begin the preparations for welcoming them into the lab. In some cases, negotiations are necessary. The negotiations usually revolve around start date and salaries. We take these as they come and try to accommodate as much as we can, but there are University or budget-imposed limits on salaries and such. We put a lot of time into finding the right candidate, we want them to be happy here.

Wrapping up the hiring process: We don’t forget about the folks that didn’t get the offer to work with us! Nothing sucks more than not hearing whether you were selected for a position you were excited about (cough *University hiring committees* cough). Usually our Human Resources admin will email them to say thank you for applying. If they made the interview stage, I send that email.

Perceptions of the process: We’ve been using this process for over a year. It’s in-depth and takes a lot of time to implement. Some of my anecdotal observations across several hires are that:

  1. The majority of applicants are women.

  2. The majority of applicants that make it to the interview stage are women.

  3. About half of the applicants that get interviewed are from groups underrepresented in STEM.

  4. Perceptions of the “top” applicants changes with interviews.

  5. The two-part interview works extremely well and most applicants highlight how they appreciate it.

  6. Sometimes applications that have good paper applications are definite “no’s” after the interview, but the reasons for this are varied.

That wraps up this multi-part newsletter. Thank you to those of you who have reached out to me, or shared our workflow with a friend. If you have further questions, be sure to comment below. Please like or share Un-Cultured with your friends or colleagues.


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